Photo of a deer through night vision

Photo credit: outdoor

If you were around in the 1990s-2000s, you might remember Mad Cow Disease – a disease in cows that can spread to humans via consumption of infected meat, and that leads to a degeneration of the brain and spinal tissue (known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans).  Despite having a more scientific name—bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—and a low incidence of human disease, “Mad Cow” latched onto the collective conscious twenty years ago, leading people to think twice about where they got their meat, and causing panic in some when they found out that the disease could lay dormant in human brain tissue for decades. If you’ve been feeling nostalgic for “Mad Cow”, I’ve got some great news. Get ready for the next big thing in degenerative brain diseases spread by meat consumption – Zombie Deer Disease!

Zombie Deer Disease, otherwise known as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), has been observed among mule deer in the United States since 1967. Currently, the disease can be found in wild herds in 24 states and in Canada. Similar to BSE, CWD is spread by prions, a type of distorted protein that binds to other similar proteins, causing them to change as well, creating a chain reaction that leads to the propagation of disease and creation of new infectious prions.  Also like BSE, an animal infected with CWD may not show symptoms for up to two years: vacant stares or exposed ribs are clear indicators of disease.

Don’t get too excited, Zombie Deer Disease has not been proven to infect humans… yet.  A recent Canadian study showed that macaques could be infected with CWD by consuming infected deer meat.  Scientists believe that a “zoonotic jump” is inevitable, meaning that with the right mutation, humans could soon be susceptible to infection.  This new research is spurring warnings to avoid consuming deer meat, and to take precautions when handling deer carcasses.

Most people will have no problem adhering to these warnings, as deer meat (venison) is nowhere near as popular as other protein sources, such as beef, poultry, or pork. However, those that do consume wild deer meat—game hunters and indigenous peoples—are the most at risk due to the lack of safety barriers involved with consumption of wild deer meat.  Meat that is hunted is not subject to the rigorous safety measures as meat purchased from the grocery store, and because CWD can lie dormant in infected deer for so long without showing symptoms, hunters cannot visually distinguish between sick and healthy deer. State wildlife agencies may have the capabilities available for hunters to test their kills, and would be able to recommend that kills testing positive be destroyed.

Hunters should be aware of CWD—a state or national campaign highlighting the reality of Zombie Deer Disease is practically begging for production, and would certainly get the attention of both hunters and lay persons, as Mad Cow Disease did nearly two decades ago.  Encouraging hunters to test their kills and making test kits available for testing would also improve surveillance and reduce the chance that CWD will cross over to humans.  However, until CWD prions can successfully infect humans, all talk of a Zombie Deer Apocalypse is pure fiction.